Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert may be knocking on the door to another Kentucky Derby and, given his remarkable record, perhaps much more.
Undefeated Game Winner heads into the winter as the early Derby favorite and undoubtedly secured the Eclipse Award as the champion 2-year-old male after he rallied to defeat longshot Knicks Go by 2 ¼ lengths in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to cap Future Stars Friday at Churchill Downs.
Baffert could not help but immediately turn his thoughts to 2019 and the famed run for the roses.
“The way he won, the way he did it, was pretty impressive,” said Baffert. “It’s a good feeling at the eighth pole to start thinking some roses.”
Baffert has emerged as a dominant trainer in guiding American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015 and again accomplishing one of the rarest feats in sports this year with Justify, the only Triple Crown winner to go unraced at 2. Justify was retired as the only unbeaten Triple Crown champion in history.
Game Winner, a bay son of Candy Ride owned by Gary and Mary West, secured his fourth victory in as many starts. This was his third successive Grade 1 triumph following an auspicious 5 ¾-length romp in his Aug. 18 debut at Del Mar. He was a game 1 ½-length victor in the Sept. 3 Del Mar Futurity before he pulled away by 4 ½ lengths in the Sept. 29 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita.
The Juvenile was undoubtedly the rising star’s most impressive performance to date. He did not have the easiest of trips for jockey Joel Rosario, going four wide around the first turn and coming from well off the pace to power past 40.50-1 Knicks Go and give Baffert his fourth Juvenile winner among 15 Breeders’ Cup triumphs.
“I thought he was a good horse, but he’s a lot better than I thought he was,” Baffert said. “For him to do what he did that last quarter of a mile, to give that horse [Knicks Go] a head start like that and be that wide, that’s a serious horse.”
Baffert previously captured the Juvenile with Vindication (2002), Midshipman (2008), and New Year’s Day (2013). None went on to win the Derby, underscoring how treacherous the path to the first Saturday in May can be.
“We’ve just got to keep him healthy,” Baffert said, adding, “We’ve got a few of them we’re getting ready.”
The rest of the Thoroughbred racing world should consider itself forewarned.
In the other Breeders’ Cup races on Future Stars Friday:
“As soon as she got to the lead, she pricked her ears and cruised along at a pretty good pace but well in hand,” said trainer John Servis.
Churchill Downs has long been a special place for Servis, based at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa. He won the 2004 Kentucky Derby with Smarty Jones, an upstart Pennsylvania-bred, and took the Kentucky Oaks here two years ago with Cathryn Sophia, a $30,000 purchase.
Line of Duty, under right-handed urging from William Buick, briefly made contact with Uncle Benny, who appeared to come out slightly and prompted an extended review by the stewards. “That was a great decision by the stewards,” Buick said.
As Buick saw it, Line of Duty, a son of Galileo, did everything right the instant the starting gate snapped open.
“This horse really jumped well and gathered his stride quickly,” said Buick, adding, “When he quickened, he really put the race to bed.”
Bred in Ireland, Newspaperofrecord ruled her debut by 6 ¾ lengths on Aug. 19 at Saratoga Race Course and essentially duplicated that effort in dominating the Grade 2 Miss Grillo by 6 ½ lengths on Sept. 30 at Belmont Park.
“She’s a hard horse to beat because she has good positional speed and she kicks home like a closer,” said Brown after his 3-5 favorite did everything expected of her. East rallied from last in the field of 14 and outfinished Stellar Agent by a neck for second.
Newspaperofrecord completed the mile in 1:39 on a turf course labeled good.
“We wanted to leave there running and see where we landed,” said Pletcher.
The City Zip colt was making only his second career start after coasting by seven lengths in the Hollywood Beach Stakes on Sept. 29 at Gulfstream Park. He is the first victor in Cup history to succeed with only one previous race. Chelsea Cloisters nabbed second. So Perfect was less than that in third.
Pletcher had gone winless with nine starters in 2016, when Keen Ice provided his best finish by coming in third in the Classic. He failed to hit the board with three starters last year. Bulletin delivered his 10th Breeders’ Cup victory overall.